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A peace prize for Tunisia and lessons for everyone else

How the National Dialogue Quartet brokered the region’s first democratic transition since the Arab Spring

October 13, 2015 2:00AM ET

On Oct. 9, Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for shepherding the only successful transition to democracy in the Arab world since uprisings began in the region in 2010. The quartet’s importance goes far beyond its pivotal role in brokering a democratic transition in 2013 and 2014: It can provide important lessons for other Arab countries as well as foreign powers that remain perplexed about how to respond to continuing Arab struggles for freedom, dignity and democracy. 

The quartet’s composition was the crucial starting point of its successes. It consisted of the country’s largest labor union (UGTT), its employers’ federation (UTICA), its lawyers’ association and the Tunisian Human Rights Association. The first two represented Tunisian workers and business owners, critical poles of the economy; the lawyers and human rights activists represented the rule of law, constitutionalism and citizen rights in the pluralistic democracy that would replace the old dictatorship.

These four organizations had the moral authority and political credibility required to achieve constitutional democracy, but they also took three practical steps to enable their success. They made regular compromises among those in authority, including rotating power and voluntarily relinquishing the premiership; ensured that major decisions reflected inclusive consultations among all political actors and the public; and patiently phased in all major steps toward their democracy.

The phasing in was crucial, in view of the failures of Libya, Yemen and Egypt, all of which rushed into elections before forming a consensus constitution. The first step was the agreed resignation of the coalition government headed by Al-Nahda, an Islamic party, which won 37 percent of the votes in the first post-revolution elections of October 2011. This reflected a consensus that nonpartisan leadership would best manage the next crucial steps toward democracy, especially agreeing on the constitution and overseeing the elections. (Egypt’s transition stalled and reversed, with an army-run autocracy now in power, because the Muslim Brotherhood and the armed forces, in turn, used their control of the government to shape a constitution that favored them rather than one that reflected a true national consensus.)

The consultations that led to the Tunisian Constitution of January 2014 then opened the path to elect a parliament and president in late 2014. The Constitutional Court, which preserves the inviolability of the constitution and its guarantees of citizen rights, played an important role. The power-sharing concept, critical in the quartet’s work, is institutionalized in the agreement that the 12 members of the Constitutional Court would be named by the president, the parliament and the Supreme Judicial Council, each of which names four judges, one of whom must not be a legal expert. This helps make sure that the ruling party, the opposition and civil society all play a part in naming the court’s judges.

The Tunisian experience provides important lessons for Arab countries and also for foreign powers that seek to promote reforms in the Arab world.

The third important reason for Tunisia’s success was broad agreement on the importance of simultaneously tackling the economic stress, social disparities and political alienation that sparked the December 2010 revolution. To boot, the slogan that the UGTT and UTICA used to develop the quartet process was “Social stability to re-boost the economy.”

The combination of organizers, ideas and actions that came together in the National Dialogue Quartet finally led to that elusive goal that no other Arab country has achieved in modern history: a genuine and negotiated social contract that defined relations, rights and responsibilities between the governed and the governing. Tunisia shattered the century of Arab autocracy because its people put into practice the principle of the consent of the governed in an Arab public sphere.        

The Tunisian experience in this sense provides important clues for Arab countries and also for foreign powers that seek to promote reforms in the Arab world. The quartet’s success reminds us that genuine reforms must respond to citizens’ real grievances in multiple dimensions of life, including the political, economic, social and environmental. This is the moment to acknowledge the deeper lesson of this Nobel Peace Prize, which is about understanding the roots of citizen despair and tackling them simultaneously and head on.

The group’s name reminds us of the failed quartet that was established in 2002 by the U.S., Russia, the U.N. and the EU to promote a Palestinian-Israeli peace agreement. That Middle East quartet has failed miserably, for many different reasons. Yet the contrast with the Tunisian quartet should help us understand that such efforts succeed when they use the credibility of their members equally to achieve a wider goal through a genuinely consultative process anchored in the rule of law and equal rights for all — whether citizens in Tunisia or Israelis and Palestinians in the Middle East.

The Nobel Peace Prize for the Tunisian quartet offers the world much more than a celebration of Tunisia’s patient consultative process. For those who have the courage and the will to look into those dark recesses of occupation and subjugation that still plague so many parts of the Middle East, there is a shining example of a road map to liberty and equality that really works.

Rami G. Khouri, a Jordanian-Palestinian national, is a senior public policy fellow at the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut and a senior fellow of the Harvard Kennedy School.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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